An American Love Story
Issue   |   Tue, 02/05/2013 - 21:13

There’s a history of non-violence in my family: my paternal grandfather grew up in a quaker household, my parents put the kibosh on arguments between me and my brother before they were anywhere near physical and contact sports — excluding elementary school basketball and the physicality that sometimes accompanies it (i.e., when one kid trips over another) — were never allowed.

This sat well with me, and I learned to love baseball, cross country running and Nordic skiing, but there was a brief period when I wanted to play high school football. Admittedly, I think it was only because the football players were the “pretty ones” who attracted all the girls. On some level, I hoped, in the early throes of high school, to have a girlfriend as a distraction from my problems of fitting in with the other guys who all bonded over Sunday NFL games. But once I found an outlet in running, my hopes of playing football went down in history merely as a week-long series of dinner table conversations with my parents that always ended in, “no!”

And I’m glad it was so. I think about the violence in our culture — guns, war-based video games and Ultimate Fighting, to name a few — and understand why the NFL is so popular. Many of the fans out there aren’t interested in supporting their home team or enjoying the play-making aspects of the game; they want to see guys pummeling one another.

Helmets pop off (true, they have chin straps, but, let’s be honest, how often do receivers actually buckle them?); arms break (think Patriots’ tight end Gronkowski) and knees explode (the winces that the injury scene in Friday Night Lights elicit from me are worse than those directed at my own pain). 220-pound quarterbacks are driven into the earth by 350-pound lineman (the skewed matchup, which we love, isn’t remotely fair when you classify it in terms of weight class, as in boxing or wrestling).

As I read the sports section of the paper every morning, I wonder why I flip past the football articles to basketball; after all, it’s just as beautiful a game in terms of the complexity, the movement and the necessary athleticism.

Then I wonder why they have to tackle. I journey back to the days of elementary school and fondly remember flag football, where we’d stuff scarves in our pockets and sprint around one another without the fear of a snapped knee or bruises that turned the entire body green. And I wonder: why can’t the NFL do the same thing?

Then I remember high school, and watching our football team huddle before each game: they’d chant, “1...2...3...KILL!” Even on stage at the awards ceremonies every fall, the Special Ed student who wasn’t allowed to play but travelled with the team was taught one thing: to “kill,” whatever that meant to him. He’d stand with the coach, about to receive his “Manager” certificate, and the coach would ask him: “Stephen, what do you want to say to the audience? Anything? No? Ok, how about this: what are we going to do on the field tomorrow? Huh? Huh?” And the teammates on stage behind him would egg him on, saying, “Stephen, what are we gonna do? C’mon, man!” The audience — oh, how naive we all were — waited for it every year, knowing what he’d say: “We’re gonna kill ’em!”

And the audience, parents and children alike, erupted. Or at least enough of them did that they drowned out the naysayers who were quietly condemning the violence.

Fans aside, the violence is also programmed into the players. Many of them strive to hit, hard and often — and that’s it. Remember the “bounty” issue that arose with the Saints last year? The players were given money in addition to their salaries for hitting certain quarterbacks with the intent to injure them — “take them out,” if you will. A conscientious player would understand that he was essentially playing the role of a hit man, but since such violence has become customary, it didn’t strike any of them as odd enough that they should speak out. To them, it was just football with a couple added perks.
What’s more, video games from “Hitman” (exactly what it sounds like) to Madden Football itself encourage such violence. In Madden, one can actually program the strength of a tackle, and figures in the video game walk off the field injured.
Sadly, it’s as realistic as it gets.

The fans, too, might have noticed that the Saints defense was going out of its way to demolish certain quarterbacks, but to most of them it was just extra effort and good old football violence. Heck, if watching people hit other people is what brings friends together one Sunday out of the year to guzzle beer and chow on greasy food, why would anyone dissent? Hell, the Super Bowl set television viewing records with 111 million people last year and did so for the third year in a row; the World Series attracted just 15 million and the fifth game of the NBA Finals last year had a mere 12 million.

Again, I’ll discredit my argument by assuming that half of those 111 million people watch for the advertisements, and about a quarter for the content and play of the game itself, but what about the approximately 28 million viewers left over? I’d be willing to wager, based on gun violence, video games and my own experiences with the “kill aspect” of high school football, that 15 million are in it for the violence on some level. And who’s to say there’s anything wrong with that?

Luckily, President Obama spoke against the violence of the game in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. The 49ers’ coach, Jim Harbaugh, didn’t echo the president’s sentiments and even hinted at the fact that increased safety concerns would ultimately destroy the game’s popularity.

While I agree with the President’s desire to suppress football’s violent nature, I must also acknowledge Harbaugh’s shrewd conclusion: without the brutality and contact-driven intensity of football, the NFL would not fulfill America’s lust for violence.

Martin L Schneider (not verified) says:
Sat, 02/09/2013 - 13:23

Muskat neatly and efficiently sums up one of our country's great but poorly identified issues, the hidden anger, resentment, and frustration which seem to result in a yearning for violence among vast numbers of the population. But he left out guns which are literally, infinitely more effective in expressing violence and is why they are a major danger to society.